Ask the Experts: Amelia Saltsman

by Jessica on August 3, 2010

Capon is hardly your average-weeknight-dinner-at-a-friend’s-house kind of meal. But the way Amelia Saltsman’s daughter, with whom we went to school, talked about food suggested that their kitchen was a totally different league than ours. So I knew I’d be in for a treat when my sister and I were invited over the Saltsmans’ for dinner.

Amelia is an accomplished cook, writer, and all-around food maven about town. But her main territory is the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, about which she wrote a widely praised cookbook. Here she shares some of her insights about eating with kids, which come from many years as being a mother to three, and now a grandmother.

And back to the capon. The words “castrated rooster” have a certain way of burning themselves in one’s brain — especially if you’ve never heard of a capon before. In fact, I can’t honestly say I’ve eaten it since. Or if I have, it was without my knowing, and it probably wasn’t as good as the one Amelia cooked.

What are some foods you regularly make for kids?

I emailed my kids and asked them what they remember. Here’s a sampling of what I got back: tacos with a platter of toppings to make your own; polenta with mozzarella and sautéed peppers, onions, and capers; risotto pancake with cheese in the middle (made in a skillet from leftover rice and cut into wedges—tomato risotto was the fave); soups of all kinds (Rebecca would eat just about any vegetable if it was in simple pureed soup form); goat cheese on baguette; fruit crisps of all sorts (don’t need much sugar!). I would add to this list egg-laden French toast and matzoh brei, and child-size portions for special occasions such as mini burgers–sliders in today’s world. I enrich mine with oats.

I would also add the quick-sautéed greens, onions, and garlic that was one of Delfina’s favorite first foods. That dish and Rebecca’s soups are great illustrations of the unpredictability of a developing palate and the importance of parents’ keeping an open mind when offering foods. And remembering that what was liked or disliked one month may be an entirely different story the next.

After nearly four decades of cooking for kids, I’ve learned there are lots of ways to empower children’s love of wide variety of foods: get them to help cook and let go of the need for perfect results.  Involve them from a very young age in the decision making, shopping, growing, tasting, etc. But do it in a way that gives choices that you’ll be okay with in the end: “shall we have broccoli or zucchini tonight?”  Ask even when they are too young to actually answer—it’s good practice for you.

What have been some of your favorite “family-friendly” L.A. restaurants?

Angeli Caffe is one of the most family-friendly places for people who love food. Some of our most important family occasions have taken place at Evan’s restaurants (including her much-lamented Trattoria on Santa Monica Blvd near Federal) or through Angeli catering. We’ve taken kids and grandchild everywhere from Spago (2-year-old Delfina discovered foie gras), Campanile, Lucques, and Mozza to every neighborhood eatery of every cuisine type. There’s almost always something a small child can eat, and if there isn’t, just bring something with you. But do let them taste whatever—see answer above.  Most any place will be happy to accommodate you when they see your interest in raising young gastronomes.

Are you ready for a trip down memory lane? Back in the day when we lived in Malibu and our kids were young, we used to go to Jean Leon’s La Scala (where Tra de Noi is now), which offered the only fine food in the area at the time. We trekked down to a trendsetting American regional cuisine restaurant in Santa Monica called American Bar & Grill (currently Ivy at Shore?) and as I mentioned, Trattoria Angeli. If you really want to go back in LA restaurant history, we used to take them to Swiss Echo on Pico for schnitzel and plum tart, and my parents used to take the kids to Trader Vic’s.

What’s the most embarrassing thing your kids or grandkid ever did in a restaurant?

Who can remember.

Any tricks/tips for getting kids to make it through a civilized meal out?

Most important thing—relax. Tension is not a great way to start what’s supposed to be a pleasant experience, and children can read their parents like an open book.

Second, start them at an early age. Familiarity with an experience breeds good behavior, so the earlier you start taking kids out to eat, the quicker the payoff, even if there are some challenging evenings in the mix.

Come prepared–bring games, toys, crayon, paper, even a snack in case nothing shows up on the table when you most need it.

Pay attention to your young child as you would to any other dinner guest at the table (okay, maybe more while you’re laying the groundwork). You know how when you ignore your child at home, they tend to demand attention even more? The stakes are even higher in restaurant settings because you’re worried about disturbing others.

If going out with friends, go with people who understand. If taking a new infant to a restaurant, remember that although they may start screaming at the top of their lungs and their cries are piercing your ears, heart, and nerves, their little lungs are small and their voices often blend in with the din of loud talkers and laughers. I say this merely to keep new parents from panicking before handling the situation.

So be respectful of other diners and staff; don’t hesitate to take a child out of the room if you can’t distract them with a toy, a change of subject, etc. Just try to do it calmly…if possible.

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